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Teenagers advance in STEM-focused African space-tech mission

By , ITWeb
Africa , 12 Feb 2021

Sixteen teenage applicants from across Africa, including South Africa, Nigeria, Ghana and Sudan, were recently selected for the Intelsat-funded XinaBox STEM learning program.

In October 2020 Intelsat announced a partnership with XinaBox, a provider of modular electronics for learners and professionals, to deliver space-focused STEM learning tools to teenagers across the continent.

Intelsat is sponsoring scholarships for students to access XinaBox’s dedicated space STEM kits and educational programs, which culminate in students designing, building and launching satellites into space.

The kits provide a rapid hardware development platform, specifically designed and manufactured for STEM applications in schools and universities.

The 16 students will follow a multi-week educational program. Mission one, which has already begun, involves experiments and data collection and learning about data science, artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IOT). The experiments are all linked to the UN Sustainable Development Goals.

Connectivity challenge

“We noticed a [connectivity] disparity between many of the students we interviewed for our scholarship program,” said Christell Meyer, Director of Sales, Intelsat South Africa.

Meyer says many applicants noted barriers to internet access and a working computer. Some students used the same email address and computer via internet cafes in their town. Others logged on to apply from a small room within a refugee camp in Kenya where students applied and interviewed for the program using a social worker’s computer.

“We know connectivity is a problem. This interview process highlights the severity of the problem,” said Judi Sandrock, XinaBox Co-Founder. “To be involved in the project, students need a reliable internet connection. If they can’t connect, unfortunately, they are cannot participate to the degree required. It’s a missed opportunity.”

However, there is hope. Sandrock says not making the cut this time does not mean disqualification; it means students can participate in the future, once-reliable internet is in place.

“Many of our customers across Africa have stepped up and said they would like to help us connect these communities so students can have a shot at making their dreams of working in space a reality,” said Meyer.

Meyer says there is even discussion of delivering XinaBox learning sessions via satellite, a solution to use connectivity in an asynchronous way.

These changes will likely take place after this first mission is concluded.

Additional missions could also be crafted for students in special situations, including those living in a refugee camp in Kenya.

“We are considering a ‘Train the Trainers’ lesson for those students with limited infrastructure. Many times, refugee students are not included, and as a result, they are overlooked and never participate in many programs. We want to make sure we close that gap and fulfill their dreams,” said Sandrock.

Organisers say the program is designed to spark a lifelong interest in STEM and pave the way for a more technologically advanced workforce.

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